More and more, technology has been on our side in coffee buying. I can simply pick up my smartphone, open whats app, and gush to Carlos Guamanga, or others about how well their coffee is performing. Waiting to debrief after a good chunk of the year has gone by is no longer necessary. Feedback loops are easier to close. It's the best.
Things are getting easier, but it isn't the norm yet. Visiting Angela at her small farm outside Pitalito is inspiring, and frustrating. Inspiring for her commitment to her Caturra trees, her soil, the small stepped pathways into the steep rows that line her side of the mountain. The sound of a zipline across from her farm, transporting freshly picked coffee down the mountain (a far more realistic and fun approach... imagine carrying it down!). It's sunny and calm and her kids are hanging out making smoothies with milk and carrot, and tending to black beans for their own food consumption, drying in their raised beds.
The frustration is no matter how much we pay (right now it's triple market price) for Angela's coffee, it still won't be enough. Economies of scale for smallholders isn't often talked about outside NGO circles, but it is necessary to consider it. At present, Angela and her husband have a 2.5 hectare farm of beautiful, well maintained, healthy coffee plants. To make ends meet, her husband works as a picker on a neighbour's farm. If they manage to buy enough land to get to 5 hectares total, this changes how they live immensely.
Angela doesn't have a cell phone, though she mentions her daughter has Facebook. Other than that, the only way to get in touch with her from Vancouver is to contact the lab she works with in Pitalito, through the exporter we work with. The name of her farm is a topic in and of itself, El Olvido (the oblivion). What a fascinating, and almost haunting name. Angela speaks of how she was selling to programs like Nespresso, and some lots to specialty buyers. She would never know where the coffee ends up. She said to us shyly, "I want to know who has my coffee".
I'll visit again in November. Give our feedback, ask how much more she will produce, and figure out how this partnership can be helpful, positive, and transformative for both of us. Hopefully there's some land available close by. If there is anyone who deserves additional land it's Angela. She understands how to keep the soil and the plants happy. She is also part of a newly formed specialty producer's association in Pitalito, 42 farmers strong, with a focus on finding specialty buyers who will hopefully turn into repeat business for the group. There is access to a lab in Pitalito, though they have goals of building their own. The whole group is buzzing with positive energy about what lies ahead when we visit them for a group meeting. Carlos Guamanga (from El Recuerdo) is on the board of directors. It's a rock solid group with a unified vision.
There's a sense of responsibility I cannot shake, and it's the realization that it isn't enough to just buy good coffees and be done with it. Building the quality into the supply chain is the way to go, and I firmly believe it can be done in a small, but meaningful way. It's all about communication, and encouraging our producers to grow in ways that are actually helpful financially to them. Easier said than done, of course, but we try - and we rely a lot on our whole supply chain in order to do it.
Angela's coffee is beautiful, but it's a small amount. She's producing all year with a pretty good fly crop and we expect to grab more in November. Until then, we hope you enjoy this one!